In times of peace, individuals and states follow higher standards… But war is a stern teacher

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Biological and Chemical Warfare

David Wiens

The Lovett School

“In times of peace, individuals and states follow higher standards…

But war is a stern teacher.”- Thucydides

There is an eminent threat of a biological or chemical attack on the civilians of the United States of America. It is estimated that biological and chemical weapons have killed millions of people throughout history and the agents and toxins are only becoming increasingly lethal. Biological agents like Bacillus anthracis have been and can easily be used again in a covert attack by terrorists to kill a significant number of civilians. The United States of America needs to greatly improve their ability to prevent and combat a biological or chemical attack.

Biological and chemical warfare is not something new. It was widely used much earlier than most people know and it was such a big part of society that it even showed up in Greek mythology. As early as 1770 BC the Sumerians showed an understanding of contagion. Starting in 1500 BC, the Hittites sent their plague victims to enemy lands to spread the plague among their enemies. Sending plague victims or bodies to enemy lands was common for many years after the Hittites. In 1200 BC, during the Trojan War, it was common for arrows to be poisoned before going into battle. Kirrha, Greece was defeated when their enemies poisoned the city’s water supply with the plant Hellebore. There are many different stories of the defeat of Kirrha but all of them rely on the poisoning of the water. For many years after these events, biological and chemical warfare remained common during war times. One of the most documented and well-known uses of biological weapons was during the 15th century when Pizarro gave smallpox-infected blankets and clothes to the South American natives killing a large percentage of them.

More recently, biological and chemical warfare has become even more effective and common, making it that much more dangerous. The French, who were soon followed by the British, first used chemical weapons in modern warfare during World War I. During the war, a total of 50,965 tons of chemical agents were deployed by both sides, the most common chemical agents being mustard gas and chlorine. It is estimated that there were 85,000 fatalities directly caused by chemical agents during World War One.

Aum Shinrikyo is a violent religious cult in Japan. From 1992 to 1995 the group produced anthrax and sarin for the purpose of biological and chemical terrorism. First, they attacked Japanese civilians with anthrax nine different times but no one was killed by any of the attacks because a relatively harmless strain of anthrax was used. However, in 1995 the group successfully released sarin, a deadly chemical weapon, into different subway trains all headed towards the heart of Tokyo. As a result of this attack, 5,500 were injured and twelve were killed.

The first major bioterrorism attack on United States’ soil occurred in 1984 in The Dalles, Oregon (Elmer-Dewitt, 2001). The masterminds of this attack were members of the Rajneeshee cult. In an attempt to sicken Oregon voters, Rajneeshees members deliberately contaminated the salad bars of ten different restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon with the bacteria Salmonella typhimurium. Luckily for The Dalles, Oregon citizens, this strain of Salmonella was treatable with antibiotics and no one was killed. Still, nearly one thousand people reported symptoms to their doctors and 751 people were confirmed to have Salmonella.

Even in such a small-scale attack, the effect on the healthcare system was immense. All of the Mid-Columbia’s hospital beds were filled for the first time ever and it was difficult for the doctors to treat all of the patients who were beginning to become impatient, frightened, and in some cases violent. Also, Mid-Columbia’s new lab was completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of specimens that needed to be sent to the state lab in Portland, Oregon (Miller, Stephen, and Engelberg, 2001). This event is a perfect example of how a large-scale biological attack could overwhelm the healthcare systems of an entire country.

An example of the eminent threat of a biological attack is the different viruses and germs that were being produced for biological warfare in Iraq throughout the late 20th century. These germs included aflatoxin, anthrax, Botulinum Toxin, cholera, mycotoxins, ricin, Clostridium perfringens (gas gangrene), shigella, and wheat-cover smut. The viruses that Iraq was producing include camelpox, enterovirus 70, rotavirus, and infectious hemorrhagic conjunctivitis. It is believed that Iraq was also concealing the smallpox virus but it cannot be proven. Furthermore, Iraq was working on genetic engineering, which would have given them the capability to manipulate the characteristics of certain biological agents like anthrax to make them more useful as biological weapons. Genetic engineering can change a germ so that it is more lethal or resistant to the current antibiotics for it. It is unknown how successful Iraq was with their genetic engineering, but specifically, one of their goals was to make a strain of anthrax that was antibiotic-resistant. Although none of these germs or viruses were used against U.S. troops, Iraq did conduct field tests for disseminating these agents and weaponized them (Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, 2000-2007).

Even more recently, the anthrax letters of 2001 terrified the United States of America. During this attack, a series of letters were sent to different news stations and to U.S. congressmen. In the end, five people were killed and around 17 others were infected. At first, it was believed that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks but at the end of the investigation, the FBI concluded that a former U.S. military scientist named Bruce Edwards Ivins acted alone in the attacks in an attempt to get more funding for biological warfare research. When Ivins heard about the impending trial, he committed suicide and was therefore never proven guilty.

Biological weapons are commonly known as “the poor man’s atomic bomb” because they are a relatively cheap and effective way for a person to kill a great number of people or weaken a country. There are many characteristics of biological warfare that make it a perfect choice for terrorists. These characteristics include the ability to cause widespread panic and chaos throughout a nation and the damage it can do to a country’s economy.

Also, with the technology advances in the field of biological warfare, many of the cons of biological warfare can be avoided. In the past, biological warfare was risky because it was likely that your own troops would become infected as well as the enemy, but now, the risk of that happening has been diminished greatly by long-range attack methods such as planes, helicopters, and long-range missiles. Genetic engineering can also make biological warfare more effective by manipulating the agents so that they are more deadly and resistant to drugs.

Another characteristic of a biological attack that makes it useful for terrorists is that even if it does not kill a lot of people, it weakens a great number of them thus putting a great strain on public health services and national security. The attacked country can be weaker when it is trying to provide health services to infected people than when a large number of people are killed.

Only a handful of biological pathogens have the specific characteristics to act as good bioweapons. Good bioweapons must cause serious illness or death, be highly contagious, infect many people, resist medical treatment, have a short incubation period, be easily manufactured or purchased in large quantities, have a long shelf life, be easily and effectively spread, and cause symptoms that are alarming to the public.

Smallpox is an often-deadly disease that can be used as a biological weapon. It is commonly thought to be one of the two most effective agents with the potential for civil disruption and mass casualties, the other being Anthrax (Kortepeter & Parker 1999). Many different characteristics of the variola major virus account for its ability to act as a successful biological agent. One of these characteristics is its fatality rate. Out of all of the humans infected with the most deadly strain form, variola major, 30% of them will die. This high fatality rate could be detrimental to a nation’s population. Also, Smallpox is extremely painful. Some say the pain in the agony of the disease is equal to that of a burn. A significant percentage of a nation’s population experiencing this much pain would not only cause public healthcare providers to have an extreme overflow of patients, but also it would cause a widespread panic throughout a population. This severe panic would be caused by the people’s fears of death and the significant pain.

Another characteristic of Smallpox that makes it one of the best potential biological weapons is that even if it does not kill a person, it permanently disfigures them. With so much emphasis put on appearance in our society, people with disfigured faces from Smallpox could easily become outcasts, thus pulling a society apart and making the country weaker. It would take about one hundred years for a country to recover after a bioterrorism attack during which a high percentage of the population was infected with Smallpox because people would be disfigured. Also, the fact that there is no cure for Smallpox is a key factor in making it a potentially successful biological weapon. Even though there is a vaccine for Smallpox, the U.S. is susceptible because after the eradication of the disease in the country, there has been no need for citizens to be vaccinated since 1972.

The first stage of Smallpox, much like any other disease, is the incubation period. For Smallpox, the incubation period is can range from seven to seventeen days, but on average, it is twelve to fourteen days. The incubation period begins after exposure to the virus. During this stage it is not contagious, and there are no symptoms of the disease.

The next stage of Smallpox consists of the initial symptoms and is known as the prodome phase which last for two to four days. These first symptoms may include vomiting, aches all over the body, a high fever, nausea, and fatigue. During this stage, the disease is sometimes contagious. Unfortunately, it is unusual for a common medical doctor to be able to identify the patient's condition as Smallpox at this stage, so the person could be transmitting the disease to others without even knowing it.

After the prodome stage of Smallpox comes the early rash stage which is the most contagious stage of Smallpox. This stage last for about four days and begins when a rash of small red spots in the mouth and on the tongue emerges. Next, these spots turn into sores that break open. When these sores break open, the person becomes most contagious because great amounts of the virus are distributed throughout the throat and mouth. At around the same time the sores are breaking open, a rash begins to appear on the rest of the body, normally starting near the face and moving towards the feet, eventually reaching every part of the body in approximately 24 hours. Also at this time, it is likely that the person will began to feel better because of a drop in their fever. The rash begins to change into raised bumps by the third day of this stage and by the fourth, a nontransparent and thick fluid fills these bumps. This is a key stage because at this time, most doctors are able to identify the disease as Smallpox because of the distinct depressions that form in the center of the bumps. Soon after, the fever will once again rise, causing the person great discomfort, and will remain high until scabs have formed over these bumps.

The next stage is the pustular rash. During this five day stage the human is contagious and the bumps on the person’s body become pustules. These pustules are said to feel like BB pellets under one’s skin. Next, the pustules and scabs phase lasts for another five days and the person is also contagious during this time. As the name suggests, during this stage the pustules form a scab. For the next six days, the scabs begin to fall off of the person, and pitted scars are left on the skin. Until every last one of the scabs has fallen off, the person is contagious (CDC, 2007).

The course of the disease Smallpox is an important factor in making it a good biological weapon because the disease can only be recognized by a well-trained doctor at the same time that the disease becomes contagious. Without a well-trained doctor, the disease can go unnoticed for weeks and during this time, the human infected with Smallpox can be transmitting the disease to other humans.

Anthrax, the other highly effective biological agent, is a disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis and exists naturally in the world. There are three different types of anthrax that are determined by means of the infection. The three types are inhalation anthrax, gastrointestinal (GI) anthrax, and cutaneous anthrax. Inhalation anthrax is the most deadly form of anthrax thus making an aerosol spray the most effective method of disseminating anthrax. Symptoms of inhalation anthrax include flu-like symptoms and later in the course of the disease chest discomfort and shortness of breath (CDC 2007).

GI anthrax occurs when the anthrax spores are ingested by an animal or human, and cutaneous anthrax occurs when anthrax spores get inside of a cut or other open area on one’s body (CDC 2007). Nausea, bloody diarrhea, loss of appetite, fever, and stomach pain are all symptoms of GI anthrax. Many people get GI anthrax from eating foods that have been accidentally contaminated with anthrax spores. A person gets cutaneous anthrax when anthrax spores get into cuts in the skin or other open wounds. The identifiable characteristic of cutaneous anthrax is the sore on the skin that turns into a blister and eventually an ulcer (CDC, 2003).

Anthrax is nearly the perfect pathogen for military use for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that it is a spore-forming microbe. Spore-forming microbes are the best for use as biological weapons because when in spore form, the microbes can survive different conditions that would kill other non-spore-forming biological agents. Also, the inside of the human body is a perfect place for Bacillus anthracis to reproduce, thus having a greater negative effect on the human body. Another characteristic of anthrax that makes it a viable threat as a biological weapon is its incubation period which is 6 to 46 days (CDC 2007). This means that some people will be immediately affected which will cause panic, and others will be affected a bit later, which will put greater strain on the healthcare systems.

There are a few characteristics of anthrax that are not good for biological warfare. One of these is that there is a vaccine. Currently, most military personnel are vaccinated and the federal government has stockpiled more anthrax vaccinations (CDC, 2008). Anthrax is also treatable with certain antibiotics. The antibiotics only work if a person is treated soon after they are exposed to the virus. Another characteristic of anthrax that prohibits it from being the perfect biological weapon is that cannot be transmitted from human to human. Diseases that can be spread from human to human are more successful at disrupting a society because it causes a large percentage of the population to stay isolated. This could not only harm social communities, but could also greatly damage a country’s economy.

Besides smallpox and anthrax, there are many more germs or viruses that could be used for biological warfare if properly prepared and effectively disseminated. Produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, the Botulinum toxin is one of the most toxic substances known to mankind. Although there is a long history of unsuccessful attempts to use the Botulinum toxin on the battlefield, experts say that if stabilized, aerosolize, and concentrated, it could make an effective bioweapon (CDC 2000). Dizziness, weakness, and trouble with motor functions are all symptoms of Botulinum toxin. More potential biological weapons include aflatoxin, which causes liver cancer, and cholera, which can cause diarrhea and severe dehydration if left untreated. Clostridium perfringens (gas gangrene), another potential biological weapon, causes severe lung distress, liver damage, and leaking blood vessels. Also, ricin could be used as a biological weapon because it is so lethal.

The most successful biological attack would be a covert attack. This means that no one would find out that a biological agent had been released for a certain amount of time depending on the incubation period of the disease. Until the first symptoms began to show up, the disease would continue to spread without anyone knowing, infecting more and more people. An overt attack would be less successful in killing people because as soon as the agents were released, citizens would be vaccinated and doctors would be alerted to look for the specific symptoms of that disease.

To improve their ability to prevent and combat a biological attack, the United States of America needs to focus on four major points: Informing the public and public health systems, increasing security on high risk targets, worldwide surveillance, and response plans. As Iraq’s deadly stock of biological weapons showed in the 1990’s, bioterrorism is a viable threat to the United States of America. Although a well-organized, covert biological attack on the United States of America is almost certainly going to result in fatalities, the United States of American will have a much greater chance of successfully combating or even preventing one of these attacks if they can improve all of these aspects of their biological defense.

The key to stopping panic in society once a biological attack occurred is an informed public. Even after someone does a great amount of research on biological warfare in the United States of America, they may not know of any sort of preparedness plan for their county, city, or state. Information is so important because if the public is not informed, they are more likely to panic, especially if the outbreak caused by the biological attack has major effects on the appearances of the victims.

Along with educating the public, the United States of America needs to make sure that there are a sufficient number of public health officials that are able to identify, treat, and respond to a biological attack. A lack of knowledge only makes the United States of America more vulnerable to bioterrorism.

Next, the United States of America needs to increase and improve security on high-risk targets. A high-risk target is a target for bioterrorism where if a biological agent was released, there would be mass casualties or infections, and extreme damages to the following: the United States of America’s economy, the public and private health systems, the government’s ability to properly function, and the public’s piece of mind. If terrorists successfully released a biological agent in one of these areas, the effects would be detrimental the United States of America. One of these high-risk targets is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It is the busiest airport in the world and has flights going to North America, South America, Central America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. If there is not proper surveillance, before any symptoms appeared or the disease was recognized, millions of people could be infected in six different parts of the world.

Surveillance is another key to preventing a biological attack on the United States of America. It is important for government agencies to closely monitor worldwide facilities with the ability to produce dangerous biological weapons. These facilities can be marked as “high-risk” if they are capable of producing any potentially lethal or dangerous biological agents. If these facilities are closely monitored, the chances of a successful large-scale biological attack against the United States of America is low because the U.S. government agencies would be able to stop the attack before it occurred when the even more suspicious activity was occurring at the high-risk facility.

Lastly, the United States of America needs to have organized response plans for cities and states in case of a biological attack. The federal and state governments need to work together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make an emergency response plan for the specific region. These plans need to be specific and organized and there must be an efficient and reliable method of alerting the public of the attack and what they should do now.

The United States of America is a powerful country with a strong military. Unfortunately, this immense power comes with enemies. These worldwide enemies are sometimes violent and may wish to do harm to American civilians. Although a large-scale organized biological attack with major fatalities has yet to occur on U.S. soil, the threat is eminent. Without proper information, security, surveillance, and response plans, the United States of America is and will continue to be highly vulnerable to bioterrorism and unable to prevent or combat the attack.


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